This review was first
published on CLUAS in 2001
Other albums reviewed in 2001
A review of his album 'Crooked Town'
Dublin in the eighties? Unemployment, excruciating tax rates, emigration...a pretty bleak picture in every way except one. It was probably the most exciting and creative musical period the city has ever seen. Hell, everyone had a band, just to fill the long hours between dole days! And not without reason - as Simple Minds would have put it, there was a "Glittering Prize". U2 were well on their way into the rock n' roll stratosphere via such salubrious venues as the Baggot Inn a couple of years previous. Behind them, they left two legacies - the belief that any band could wind up trailblazing the globe, and also the unfortunate mantle of "The Next U2" which was to cripple many an act for years to come. Of that legion, one of the first to suffer were The Blades.
If the Frames are the hardest working band of recent times, then it was Blades who preceded them. And the similarities do not end there - both bands managed to deftly avoid commercial success despite producing some of the finest music of their generation (although we still hope Hansard et al will turn that evasive corner). Blades output was a fusion of everything good in music at the time - chunky punk guitar, killer pop tunes and horns and baselines with a deep ska/roots influence. Indeed, "Downmarket" is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Irish singles ever released. Chief protagonist, Paul Cleary, soldiered on with the Partisans into the late eighties (playing gigs virtually weekly to pay the bills) before disappearing off radar... for almost fourteen years.
This year, two things have happened for Cleary. Rekus Records have re-released both Blades albums "The Last Man in Europe" and the patchier "Raytown Revisited" and, lo and behold, a solo effort entitled "Crooked Town". Cleary claims not to have penned a song in over a decade - having listened to this offering, we can only lament what a tragedy that is.
The album opens with "Queen of Indecision" and "Crooked Town", one catchier than the other. Layered guitars, riff upon riff, and verses more memorable than the chorus. Indeed, "Crooked Town" is very buoyant musically, masking Cleary's sharp social commentary in its dark lyrical content: "To London and Massachusetts / We went with our hopes and dreams / Now they come from Shanghai and Lagos / But we have no room, it seems".
Yet the true gems are hidden further into the album. "Ghost of Christmas Past" will certainly not be played alongside Slade at your Xmas party, given it is about a man repenting for his alcoholic and violent treatment of a lover. This is a bleak and brooding song yet the uplifting outro give a sense of hope for the flawed central character.
Similarly, "The Same Face" explores the stagnation of relationships over time and yet is the most obviously infectious tune on the album. This song just imprints itself in your mind. I guarantee you will be humming it all day.
Musically, the album is somewhere between the melodic songwriting of Neil Finn and Elvis Costello in his moodier, more downbeat moments. Not that it is without flaws. There is one inexplicably short song "Liberty Hall" and another, which closes the album, is inexcusably long - "I am the Resurrection" it ain't. As often is the case on self-produced albums, these things slip through. There are also times where it feels a touch over-produced and polished, possibly lacking the rawness a couple of live outings might have generated. But these are minor quibbles on what is a confident and bracing collection.
Overall, the album is a fine return for one of Dublin's lost singer / songwriting talents. Look out David Gray, there is some Dublin old school coming after you. "The Next U2" tag is probably well out of reach (tragically, the likes of Westlife are probably claiming it), but hopefully this time round Paul Cleary will pocket a few quid and get some of the recognition he has deserved, well, since Frankie said "Relax"!